Friday, January 31, 2014

Jolly Surprising

I recently found an illustrated children's book from the 1940s called Jolly Families, by the 'Zoo Man' of the BBC. As I flicked through the pages, it all looked very 'jolly' indeed:





But then I reached a page that prompted a sharp intake of breath:


It was a potent reminder of how values have changed.

Who was the person behind these blantantly racist images?

Ironically, they were created by a man who was a prominent anti-fascist; a Jew whose work had been banned by the Nazis. In the 1930s, Walter Trier emigrated to Britain and during the War, helped to produce anti-Nazi proganda material. He later emigrated to Canada, where some of his work is now exhibited in the Art Gallery of Ontario.

It seems odd that a man who was illustrating anti-Nazi posters was also working on this book, creating images that would now be regarded as offensive as the Third Reich posters featuring big-nosed Jews. But life is full of contradictions, isn't it.

Here is a more appealing example of Trier's work:

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Teddington - a Dreary, Overpriced Suburb?

FOREWORD - This blog post ruffled a few feathers. Regular readers know that my writing is usually tongue-in-cheek, so please take this piece with a large pinch of salt.

In the 19th century, a rural Thameside village called Teddington underwent a huge transformation into a suburb of London, as the city's population increased sixfold. Fields and meadows were swallowed up by street after street of semi-detached villas, artisans' cottages and parades of shops.

It was part of a process that was happening all over the outskirts of London, as the gaps between villages were filled with parallel roads of redbrick semis. In this new suburbia there were no longer any boundaries. Teddington suddenly turned into Twickenham or Hampton, depending on which direction you walked in.

I was born in Teddington in the 1960s and spent the first 25 years of my life there. Then, one day, I realised that it was time to pack my bags and go somewhere a little more exciting.

I moved to Twickenham.

This is where I caught the bus to my new life, a mile away:

I wonder how many hundreds of hours I have spent at this bus stop in Teddington's Waldegrave Road (the slightly improbable birthplace of Noel Coward) waiting for a glimpse of red in the far distance. I dread to think.

Sometimes I'd wait for over half an hour, before two or three 270s appeared at the same time. The drivers had probably decided to ignore the timetable and have breakfast together at Fulwell bus depot.

Nobody ever complained.

In some ways, the bus stop photo sums up Teddington for me. The sense of waiting for something to happen; that life is elsewhere.

I've been thinking a lot about Teddington recently after I had an amicable difference of opinion with @TLTeddington on Twitter, who had objected to my description of it in the latest Crap Towns book. I'd described the town as a "very dreary, overpriced suburb", which had prompted the following comments:

"The cheeky 'bar stewards'. We know how lovely it is and what a great place it is to live!"

"Clearly have never set foot in the town. we should invite them for lunch at Retro or any of the other great places. Idiot."

"We have are fortunate to have a thriving town centre filled with lovely independent shops, not a cloned town."

@TLTeddington also posted an image of this manifesto:

It all looked very inspring, but was this the same Teddington that I grew up in?

In some ways it was - we certainly shopped locally. Up until the mid-70s, when Bruce Forsyth opened a new Tesco supermarket, all of our food shopping took place in corner shops where everyone knew me by name.

It was like being in a Ladybird book.

Shopping with Mother in 'Telling the Time'.

My mother and I walked everywhere, as we couldn't afford the bus. In Stanley Road there was the Chinese butcher, who sadly died of a heart attack in his early 40s, a hairdresser's where my mother had her 'perm' and the Friend Shop, where a man would cut slices of processed ham with egg in the middle for us.

Vegetables were either bought from a greengrocer run by two brothers in Waldegrave Road, or a shop in Broad Street where a mynah bird called Bobby would greet me with a loud "'Allo!".

Sometimes, as a special treat, we would walk up to Teddington Model Shop, where there was a coin-operated miniature railway in the window. The slot for the large, pre-decimal pennies remained long after the model shop had been replaced by a video rental business.

It seemed a quiet and benign world, where the pace of change was reassuringly slow and many people had lived in their homes for decades. We knew most of the people in our part of the road, either by their surnames or by some distinguishing feature: The German lady, The Irish family, The Lady with the son that makes the noises, The Woman with the beard and The Man with no thumbs.

One woman had lived in her house since 1899:

Mrs Plutheroe, aged 103, in 2002

Our immediate neighbours included two German Jewish sisters, neither of whom hinted at their tragic past, a retired couple I knew as Auntie and Uncle Fuller, and a gentleman in his 70s called Mr Gifford, who took his 1930s Austin Seven out for a spin once a year.

There was very little traffic, so in the summer I would play in the street with the local kids, only returning when it was too dark to see.

In hindsight, it seems strange to think that the centre of London was just over ten miles away, because Teddington felt very different, like a sleepy, provincial town.

I've tried to find some photos that capture the essence of Teddington as I remember it, but only came across a few snapshots. I suppose it wouldn't have occured to me to take photos of that ordinary, everyday world that has now disappeared.

Bushy Park. Much nicer than Richmond Park.

Teddington Woolworths, where my mother sold Pick 'n' Mix (known by the local schoolchildren as "Pick 'n' Nick") to the stars.

Outside my house in Church Road (I'm the poncey-looking one on the left)

Looking at the 'Live Totally, Shop Locally' manifesto, it is simply a description of how we used to live. We knew the name of the person behind the till. We smelled the fruit and chatted to strangers. We even ate food grown within walking distance, as my parents had an allotment next to the cemetery:

So why have I been so critical of modern-day Teddington? Does it really deserve to be branded a 'Crap Town'? Well, yes and no.

There's nothing uniquely terrible about Teddington. In many ways it is a pleasant suburb that offers a more relaxed pace of life than some of the more 'vibrant' London suburbs. I'd far rather raise my children there than Peckham or Perivale. But in its journey from being the poor relation of Richmond and Twickenham to becoming a property hotspot, Teddington has lost something.

Perhaps the first sign of danger was when Brucie opened Tescos. One by one, the corner shops began to close. Some were converted into residential properties, while others became takeaways. The familiar, friendly faces behind the tills disappeared.

Then, in the mid-1980s, the London property market began its gradual ascent into the stratosphere and Teddington, once seen as a bit drab and slightly too far away from London, became increasingly desirable, as Richmond, Sheen and Kew became unaffordable.

People needed to be near London for work, but they didn't want to live somewhere where they had to worry about being mugged. They also wanted something that wasn't London, but wasn't the sticks either. Enter Teddington.

What happened next is what's happened in most parts of London and many towns within commuting distance. Demand exceeded supply and house prices reached a point where people who had grown up in the area couldn't afford to get on the property ladder. They moved out and were gradually replaced by those who had the money.

The sentence in the manifesto "Show Your Kids Their Future" is particularly poignant, because unless they have a considerable sum of money or can afford a mortage for properties that cost, on average, over 30 times the average salary, these children won't have a future in Teddington.

Like me, they'll have to move somewhere else. That is the 'crapness' of modern Teddington. This blog post could have easily been about another London suburb - they're nearly all unaffordable now - but I know Teddington better than anywhere else.

Teddington used to be a socially mixed town. It had its rough parts - in York Road the policemen always went in pairs - but most of the town was a blend of lower middle and working class and, most importantly of all, it felt like a real community.

Perhaps Teddington still feels like that, with its smart resturants, pleasant cafes and artisan bakeries, but I suspect that the town's population is far more transient than it used to be, if the estate agent signs are anything to go by.

Maybe I'm just a grumpy middle-aged man, resenting the inevitable process of change, but I'd like to feel that if my children grow up in an area, they can choose to stay if they wish and not be priced out of their home town.

Of course, by that same logic I shouldn't have moved to Lewes, as I've probably helped to price Lewesians out of their local property market. It's all very complicated, isn't it.

I think I'll go and have a lie down.

One final thought. Although Teddington may not always have been at the forefront of the avant garde, my mother may have been an inspiration to at least one contemporary artist: Grayson Perry:

That's a point in Teddington's favour, surely.

P.S - On reflection, one positive thing I must mention is that my mother spent her last few years there surrounded by very caring neighbours. She probably wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for one particular neighbour. They were all families with young children who'd managed to move to Teddington just before the house prices went into meltdown. I saw an encouraging resurgence of the community spirit I remembered from the 1970s and 80s. But will any of those children be able to remain in Teddington when they grow up? That's the question.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Nine Ages of Duncan Grant

(NB - I've now been informed that this is not Duncan Grant, so please regard this post as 'The Eight Ages...')

Duncan Grant's career as an artist has been rather overshadowed by his relationship with the Bloomsbury Group, but the Tate Gallery website has a selection of his works here.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Hertford - Not a Dump

During the last two years I've become used to driving through drab, postwar housing estates, on my way to collect or deliver books. For some reason, I usually seem to end up in Bedfordshire or Hertfordshire. I've no idea why.

When I learned, last week, that I would have to drive to Hertford, my heart sank. More ring roads and concrete. More people who look as if they are on their way to a day centre.

But I was wrong. Hertford is rather nice:

The centre of Hertford had a very strong 'market town' feeling - lots of quirky old buildings, with hidden alleys and courtyards. I also noticed that the people didn't swing their arms when they walked, which is always a good sign.

Perhaps the woman in the distance is on her way to a day centre, but I'm sure they have a better class of jigsaw puzzle there.

Castles are always a bonus and this river ends in a pleasant weir, right next to an arts centre with a chi chi cafe.

I've forgotten who the statue is of. No-one I've ever heard of.

I noticed that several signs pointed the way to a place called 'Bengeo'. Bengeo! What sort of a name is that for a town and why haven't I heard of it until today? Even buses were going there.

It all sounds rather foreign - place names should end with a consonant. But apparently Bengeo is of ancient provenance, so I take it all back.

Bengeo's main claim to fame is that it is the birthplace of Captain W. E. Johns - the author of the Biggles series of books, with titles that include Biggles Gets His Men, Biggles Takes It Rough, Biggles and the Poor Rich Boy and Biggles Fails To Return.

There are 98 Biggles titles in all, but no Biggles of Bengeo, which is rather a shame.

I liked what I saw of Hertford and tried to ignore the hideous car park and some of the less inspiring architecture on the outskirts. The centre would have been even nicer without the constant roar of traffic from the ring road, but the same could be said of most towns.

I went to Hertford expecting bland uniformity and concrete ugliness. Instead, I found character and charm. I hope I have the chance to make a return visit.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Eastern Promise

It is autumn 1975 and I'm listening to the Top 20. Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody is No.1 and as the final piano chord fades away, a strange motif for brass can be heard repeating itself in the background: D-D-Eb-D-C-A-Bb-G. The following week, I notice it again.

A few years later I discover that the tune is the call sign of Radio Tiranë, which shares the same frequency (247m medium wave) with BBC Radio 1.

I begin listening to Radio Tiranë and become fascinated by the strange rhetorical language, with words like proletariat, co-optivist, imperialist, presidium and enigmatic phrases like people's intellectual. Albania, I learn, is a communist country.

I start tuning in to radio stations in other communist countries, particularly Moscow and Prague. They are keen to tell me how wonderful their political systems are, but do it in such a mind-numbingly dull and humourless way, I find it hard to believe their claims. The announcers sound like robots and the stories are implausibly utopian, even to the ears of a schoolboy.

It is the beginning of an slight obsession with communist Eastern Europe that has remained with me ever since.

In 1988 I visit communist Czechslovakia and find that life there is even grimmer than expected. Shops are half empty, people are afraid to be seen talking to me and, more importantly, there only seems to be one flavour of ice cream. I plan to return to the Eastern Bloc as soon as possible, but a year later the Berlin Wall comes down. I'm very pleased, but also selfishly disappointed that an opportunity has been lost.

However I was wrong about lost opportunities. I have probably learned and understood far more about the Warsaw Pact countries since the Berlin Wall fell, thanks to a succession of excellent memoirs, films and documentaries.

Stasiland is probably the most successful book on the subject, in English at least, but I have just finished another memoir which I have enjoyed almost as much - the superb Red Love.

There is something particularly interesting about East Germany. It isn't just the fact that country existed in opposition to another Germany, with a figurative divide that became a literal one, but also that many of its citizens were committed in a way that the Czech, Poles and Hunagrians never really were.

After the Second World War, Germans were faced with two choices: amnesia or atonement. It could be argued that West Germany chose the former, while the East attempted to build a utopian society that would act as a historical counterweight to Naziism. The ruling elite of East Germany was dominated by long-standing communists, many of whom had either fled to Moscow in the 1930s or been imprisoned by the Nazis. They were committed.

As for the ordinary people in the Oosten, they were used to goose-stepping soldiers and fatuous slogans. If the new rulers could put food on the table and provide jobs, that would be enough for most.

Red Love could have simply been a well-written memoir of growing up in 1980s East Germany, but Maxim Leo wisely takes a back seat and concentrates on the remarkable stories of his grandfathers. One grandfather was a German Jewish communist who fought with the French resistance. The other was a committed Nazi who became an equally committed Stalinist. They both became nation builders in the new Germany.

Leo's parents were also committted to the ideals behind the German Democratic Republic, but had a more ambivalent attitude because they were not saddled with the emotional and political baggage of the 1930s and 40s. A Stasi file described Leo's father as "critical but sympathetic." Neither parent wanted to escape to the West.

As for Leo, like many of his peers, he felt completely disillutioned with life in East Germany. He had no respect for the elderly elite whose social experiment had clearly failed. Older generations were prepared to endure a lower standard of living, either because they believed or were too afraid. The young had nothing to lose and once Glasnost appeared, the edifice crumbled.

Reading Red Love today, I'm impressed by the bizarreness of a country where individuals are routinely designated enemies of the people, for the most spurious of reasons. How could a regime survive for so long? The Soviet tanks probably helped to focus people's minds, but there were also enough citizens who were prepared to spy on their neighbours. It was a country built on paranoia.

Thank God those days have gone. But there are still echoes of the East, whether it's a journalist being arrested in Putin's Russia, or a corporate conference in which a managing director's banal slogans are being applauded by an audience of anxious sycophants. The fight continues.

Finally, here are some photos from the Deutsche Demokratische Republik. Happy days:

I hope you'll enjoy Red Love too. If you don't, your name will be added to a file. Expect a visit from one of my collegues. Possibly Gunther.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Virtual Bookseller

I'm feeling quite cheerful today, particularly as I've just been hearing about what an awful Christmas most of our friends have had. As Tolstoy observed in Anna Karenina, people are miserable for a variety of reasons, however there does seem to be a consistent thread running through most of the anecdotes I've heard: 40-something parents, squeezed between demanding young children and needy, elderly parents, several of whom have become too ill to return home and are still in Lewes.

My mother-in-law attempted to spend Christmas with us, but had to abandon her journey because of the appalling weather. She got as far as Victoria Station, which was apparently full of exhausted, folorn-looking pensioners, dragging wheeled suitcases of presents. In their ap-free existence, they were blissfully unaware that the entire transport network had been shut down.

Our Christmas was rather pleasant, apart from my growing conviction that I was going to die soon.

I'm trying to convalesce, but it's difficult. When you work for a company or organisation, sick leave can feel like a minor victory against the machine. But now I'm the machine and I can't afford to take two weeks off, so I've been making short trips to work to fulfill orders and deal with enquiries.

I'm relieved that I don't run a bookshop. I entertained the idea a few years ago, but was warned off by James Heneage, the former MD of Ottakar's. I'm very glad that I listened. I would have had to borrow money, either to buy an existing business or establish a new one and would have been servicing a debt in the face of declining book sales.

Selling on the internet is easy, compared to running a shop. I don't have to start work at 9.00 and no longer have to worry about window displays, bestsellers, promotions, local parking charges, bad weather, staff sickness, health and safety audits, cashing-up, cleaning, deliveries, Christmas opening hours, signing sessions or dealing with customers. I have no 'brand'. I just sell my books for a pound or two less than the next person.

If I work full time, I know that I will be able to cover the monthly bills and food shopping. If I put my feet up and start watching too many 1970s drama series in the afternoon, I'm confident that my bank account will go into the red halfway through the month, so that's my incentive to work.

I've noticed that each country I sell to has its own quirks. German customers can be obsessed with delivery times, but are scrupulously honest. Italian buyers often seem pleasantly surprised when the book actually arrives, as if it is an unsual occurence. Americans rarely leave feedback unless they are annoyed, which distorts the seller rating.

Some of them are also very sensitive to 'odors'.

I realise that it is rather offputting if a book smells and if I detect a strong scent of tobacco or mildew, I'll either bin the book or mention it in the listing. Unfortunately, judging by the comments I receive, a small number of books slip through the net, probably because my nasal acumen has been dulled by the cowshed opposite my unit:

Perhaps I should hold each book close to my nose and have a good sniff. But I don't fancy the idea of spending several hours a day inhaling spores and dust particles. I'm not sure what the answer is.

Britain appears to be the home of pedants. My actual customers are fine, but I occasionally receive strongly-worded emails from browsers informing me that my book listing about so-and-so is woefully inaccurate and that the real first edition was published with a blue cloth cover in 1872. Sometimes, the timing (usually sent after 10.00pm) and tone suggests that the author has had a few drinks.

Of course I don't like to make mistakes, but if the only existing record for a title is in error, I have no way of telling. I welcome politely-worded corrections, but take exception to the more pompous, boorish emails.

I'm also slightly irritated by the emails I get from secondhand booksellers, particularly the ones in block capitals that read: "PLEASE ADVISE BEST PRICE INCLUDING DEALER DISCOUNT AND 2ND CLASS POST."

In a nutshell, they want to buy a book from me for around £4 and sell it on for a markup. I've no objection to that. If a seller has found customers who are prepared to pay more, then good luck to them. But when they want me to give them a 10% discount, cheaper postage and pay by cheque (which requires a time-wasting trip to the bank), I become rather grumpy and want to say "Just buy the book, like everybody else".

Fortunately, most of the people I deal with, in every country, are thoroughly decent and reasonable (they are bibliophiles, after all) and the majority of emails are from customers telling me how delighted they are with their purchase. It's particularly gratifying when someone has been reunited with a much-loved book from their youth.

Perhaps the aspect of my work that I find most satisfying is when a book that was destined for the scrapheap - literally - now has a new lease of life, bringing pleasure to another generation of readers. My business is small enough for me to care about each individual order and I enjoy finding out why Mrs X in Wyoming has spent so many years looking for the 1927 novel I've just sold to her.

The other advantage of selling on the internet is that my working hours are completely flexible, which means that I can deal with my son's various problems without having to take time off. Sometimes a whole day can be lost to medical appointments or a sudden crisis, so it is useful to be in a postion where I can catch up at the weekend.

I often go to work on Sunday, but I don't like it. The building creaks and groans, with noises that sometimes sound as if someone is standing behind me. It's very M. R. James at times.

I mention M. R. James as if I'm familiar with his works, but apart from one short story and the odd BBC drama, I'm a stranger to his oeuvre; probably because I find it hard to become engaged with something I don't believe in. I prefer the more worldly company of Anthony Trollope.

On the subject of Trollope, again, I'll end with this anecdote, which I forgot to mention in my last post:

One day, Trollope was in his club and heard two men complaining bitterly about how annoying one of his characters was, in a story that was being serialised. Trollope tapped both men on the shoulder and said: "Gentlemen, I shall have her killed within the week."

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Was I Wrong About Trollope?

In a recent comment, I suggested that Anthony Trollope was the 'Werther's Originals' of English literature (for non-UK readers, they are a sweet/candy, favoured by the elderly). I also suggested that my current penchant for Trollope was evidence that I was knocking on a bit, or as the Spanish would say, es bastante viejo.

When you need reading glasses and would rather take a Trollope than a trollop to bed, you have crossed a border.

But I was wrong. Here is a young woman who loves Trollope, apart from The Warden, which she thinks is a bit boring:

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Post-Operative Paradise

Apart from inadvertently growing a beard, I have achieved very little this week. I'm not sure how long it takes to recover from surgery, but I'm in no hurry to return to work. I can't say I miss being surrounded by malevolent bulls and surly, limbless farm workers. Also, I think I'm temperamentally suited to indolence.

But does reading count as indolence? I'm not sure. Particularly when the authors include Paul Theroux, Michael Blakemore and John Williams. As this is supposed to be a literary blog, I thought I'd recommend the best books I've read recently:

Paul Theroux - The Last Train to Zona Verde

"A tourist doesn't know where they've been. A traveller doesn't know where they're going."

Many things have been said about Paul Theroux: he is not a travel writer, but a writer who travels; he regards himself as a novelist, but the reading public don't buy his fiction; he hasn't written anything decent for 30 years; he is pompous, self-important, cynical and grumpy; even his brother doesn't like him...

I could go on - everyone seems to have an opinion on the author. But who is Paul Theroux? Even he doesn't seem to be quite sure and wrote two novels - My Secret History and My Other Life - which narrate the alternate histories of a character called Paul Theroux.

However, I liked the Paul Theroux that I met in The Last Train to Zona Verde. Written ten years after his African travel memoir, Dark Star Safari, Theroux is now in his 70s and realises that he is making his last journey on the continent. He has loved Africa since he taught there in the 1960s, but is depressed by the growing corruption and squalor that surrounds him. He asks himself the question that all travellers ask at some point: What am I doing here?

"Suffering has no value, but you have to suffer in order to know that. I never found it easy to travel, yet the difficulty in it made it satisfying because it seemed in a way to resemble the act of writing - a groping in the dark, wandering into the unknown, coming to understand the condition of strangeness."

In a Daily Telegraph review, Kevin Telfer criticises Theroux for writing a book that "feels more like a description of Theroux's inner state than what is around him." This not only seems to be rather missing the point of good travel writing, but is also woefully inaccurate, as one of the strengths of The Last Train to Zona Verde is its vivid accounts of the landscape and people.

If Theroux is 'grumpy' about sub-Saharan Africa, it is because he is comparing the present day reality of the continent with the idealism of the 1960s:

"We have bestowed on Africa just enough of the disposable junk of the modern world to create in African cities a junkyard replica of the West, a mirror image of our own failures. Such places are transit camps filled with people who have been abandoned by their fattened and corrupt governments."

But this is not a relentlessly gloomy book. Time and time again, we meet people who rise above the limitations of their backgrounds to triumph against the odds and Theroux is as keen to tell the stories of others as he is to ask himself what a 70-year-old man is doing on a journey that might end in death.

I enjoyed this armchair journey to somewhere I never intend to visit and would recommend it without reservation.

Michael Blakemore - Stage Blood

The mark of a really good book is one that makes you care about a subject you've never been interested in. In spite of having in-laws who worked in the theatre, I'm woefully ignorant about the subject and wouldn't have chosen to read this book if it hadn't been for this brilliant review by Simon Callow.

Whether you're interested in the early years of the National Theatre or not, Stage Blood is a gripping read in which the octogenrian Michael Blakemore settles an ancient score with Sir Peter Hall. In the hands of a lesser writer, it could have been an unedifying read by an embittered old man, but this memoir sparkles with generosity and wit.

Blakemore's portraits of figures like Olivier and Tynan are immensely entertaining, as is his description of Anthony Hopkins' disastrous, alcohol-fuelled performance of Macbeth. But it is the growing tension with Sir Peter, culminating in a terrible showdown, which rises Stage Blood above the level of an ordinary memoir and gives the reader a vicarious, visceral thrill.

John Williams - Stoner

When you read a book that has been universally praised and selected as every other person's book of the year, it is hard not to feel a certain resistance. How could any novel possibly live up to this amount of hype?

But Stoner did.

Alexander Lernet-Holenia - I Was Jack Mortimer

One of the best small publishers around is Pushkin Press, who specialise in discovering and translating lost classics, particularly European ones. I discovered them ten years ago, when I read Antal Szerb's wonderful Journey By Moonlight (originally published in Hungarian) and managed to get the book included in an 'Undiscovered Classics' promotion that I organised, across 130 branches of Ottakar's.

I Was Jack Mortimer is an short Austrian novel, published in 1930, that reads like that bastard offspring of Franz Kafka and Raymond Chandler. It also reminded me of Antal Szerb and Jiri Weil, with its highly developed sense of the absurd.

The plot is simple enough: a taxi driver picks up a passenger at a station and is asked to drive to the Bristol Hotel. After a few minutes, the driver asks the passenger to clarify whether he wants the Old Bristol or the New Bristol. There is no reply. He repeats his question and is once again met with silence. When he is finally able to turn  round, the driver is horrified to see that his passenger has been killed. But how?

What follows is an enjoyably absurd story that vividly evokes the spirit of Middle Europe between the wars. It only takes a couple of hours to read, so I'd recommend it for a journey.

I've also enjoyed Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? - a great comfort read, full of wit and insight. I'd always regarded Trollope as a bit of an old windbag until I took the plunge a few years ago and read He Knew He Was Right.

Perhaps I'm just getting old, but I find Trollope's novels increasingly appealing.

Finally, I'd also recommend Max Hastings' book Bomber Command - another book about a subject I knew relatively little about. I had no idea that at the beginning of the War, British bombing was woefully inaccurate, with navigation equipment so rudimentary, that pilots were often miles from their targets.

Occasionally, if a magnetic storm affected their compasses, they even flew in the wrong direction and one pilot - a man named Warren - unwittingly bombed an English city (from then on, his colleagues called him Baron von Warren).

Although Max Hastings tries to be even-handed, it is clear that he doesn't have much time for 'Bomber' Harris, whose obsession with destroying every city in Germany allegedly clouded his military judgement and resulted in the unnecessary loss of life of both airmen and civillians.

If I had to recommend just one book, then it would have to be Stoner, but you've probably already read it.

At some point my wife will stop waiting on me hand and foot and I'll have to resume selling books, but in the meantime, I'm going to enjoy every moment.

Finally, this has nothing to do with books, but I watched The Happiest Days of Your Life with my mother the other day and thought that this scene alone made the whole film worthwhile: